Settlement Means New Protections for Manatees
By Cat Lazaroff
WASHINGTON, DC, January 28, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced new measures aimed at protecting the endangered Florida manatee. The steps, which include new speed zones for powerboats and better enforcement of existing rules, refuges and national parks, are part of a settlement between the federal government and environmental groups who sued over what they called ineffective management of the dwindling species.
Under the latest agreement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) will propose three new manatee protection areas and establish specific time lines for putting up signs to alert boaters that they are entering manatee protection areas. The agreement, which was filed in federal district court in Washington DC, is the most recent development stemming from a January 2001 legal settlement between the agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a coalition of more than a dozen environmental groups.
Collisions with boats and propellers are a major cause of manatee injuries and death in Florida. In 2002, 305 manatees died in state waters, according to the latest figures from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Ninety-five of those deaths - 31 percent of the total - were related to watercraft, the highest number ever.
In January 2001, conservation groups including the Save the Manatee Club, Defenders of Wildlife, The Humane Society of the United States, and the Sierra Club, won a landmark settlement agreement compelling the USFWS to institute new measures to protect manatees. The 2001 settlement committed the agency to a schedule for the designation of new manatee refuges and sanctuaries throughout peninsular Florida.
But in July 2001, the USFWS called the settlement illegal, saying it "unlawfully" constrains the discretion of the federal government to take no action to protect manatees, and asked a federal judge to overturn the agreement. Federal District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled against the USFWS, and ordered the agency to designate new refuges for Florida manatees by November 1, 2002.
The USFWS has pledged to draft a proposed rule designating additional manatee protection areas in the Caloosahatchee River, the St. John's River, and the Halifax River and Tomoka River complex, by March 31. After soliciting public comment on the rule, the USFWS will issue a final decision by July 31.
For any areas that are designated as manatee refuges or sanctuaries, the USFWS will place temporary signs or buoys delineating the newly designated manatee protection areas by August 31, to notify the public about boating restrictions. The process of placing permanent signs at these areas will begin by September 1, and be completed "as soon as practicable," the agency said.
For the 13 areas designated by the USFWS as manatee protection areas last November 8, the USFWS has committed to begin erecting permanent signs by February 10.
The new protections are targeted at areas with high rates of boating related manatee mortality. For example, since 1974, 48 percent of Lee County's watercraft related manatee deaths have been documented in the Caloosahatchee River system, and 75 percent of the Caloosahatchee River deaths have occurred since 1990.
"The tragic increase in boat related manatee deaths underscores the urgent need for better manatee protection in areas identified as having high manatee use, high manatee mortality, high boating activity, and inadequate manatee protection regulations," said Patti Thompson, director of science and conservation for Save the Manatee Club, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. "As a result of this agreement, manatees should finally get some of the protection they need in these areas."
To complement the terms of the agreement, the USFWS plans to increase the presence of federal law enforcement officers on the water to ensure boater compliance with speed zones, and conduct formal consultations for proposed watercraft related activities that may affect manatees. This year, the agency will conduct task force operations during high use weekends as well as weekday patrols in high priority manatee areas throughout Florida.
The USFWS will work with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to coordinate enforcement activities. The National Park Service has also pledged to strengthen manatee protection efforts within national parks throughout Florida.
Representatives from the National Marine Manufacturer's Association, the Marina Operators Association of America, the Association of Florida Community Developers and the Marine Industries Association of Florida participated in negotiations with the environmental coalition and the government agencies, and also signed off on the 2001 negotiated settlement.
But four marine industry groups that intervened in the lawsuit were not party to the latest negotiations, and say they are unhappy with the settlement. The Marine Industries Association of South Florida notes that the latest manatee count, completed last week, found 3,113 manatees, the second highest count since the survey began in 1991.
Perhaps, the manufacturers say, the rising number of manatee deaths is simply a function of the rising numbers of live manatee swimming in Florida's waters.
Biologists with the FWCC's Florida Marine Research Institute say optimal weather conditions played a role in the high count, and could account for most of the more than 50 percent increase over last January's count, which was plagued by bad weather.
FWCC executive director Kenneth Haddad says the agency has decided to delay any decision on weather to downlist manatees from endangered to threatened on the state list of at risk species. Haddad said deciding the issue now would "further polarize the public at a time when various factions are arguing and litigating to increase or decrease manatee protection efforts."
Conservation groups hope that the agreement and ongoing consultations will lead to additional protections for manatees, and will influence the siting of future boat docks and other developments related to watercraft. Under the new rules, anyone seeking to build new docks or water strips must undergo a formal application process requiring review by the USFWS and other federal agencies.
"Our message has always been simple: effective manatee protection measures need to be in place before new docks, and the subsequent boat traffic associated with them, are authorized," said Thompson. "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking some of the necessary steps so manatees will be protected once new boat docks are permitted in these areas."
The final agreement is available at: http://northflorida.fws.gov/Manatee/manatees.htm